Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Mystery of missing WWII airman Ian Wilson solved after 72 years

For more than 70 years, Angela Caughey never knew how her brother died.

Late one brisk autumn night in 1944, the postmaster knocked at their Remuera Rd door with a telegram. Her father slowly came back down the hall, his footsteps echoing off the wooden floor.

"It's Ian, girls," he said. Caughey's mother staggered.

Ian Wilson was reported missing, presumed dead, after a Fleet Air Arm operation over occupied France.

The Wilson family never heard anything more.

Angela Caughey (formerly Angela Ruxton Wilson) with her family photographs after discovering how her second brother, Sub-Lieutenant Ian Lewis Ruxton Wilson, was killed in WW II. Photo / Nick Reed
Angela Caughey (formerly Angela Ruxton Wilson) with her family photographs after discovering how her second brother, Sub-Lieutenant Ian Lewis Ruxton Wilson, was killed in WW II. Photo / Nick Reed

It was their second devastating blow of World War II.

Angela was just a schoolgirl when eldest brother Pete Wilson, handsome and dashing in his blue RNZAF pilot's uniform, dropped her off at a friend's house to play.

He leaned across the family's opalescent green DeSoto's front bench seat, kissed her on the cheek, and said, "Be good, Ange."

She never saw him again.

Pete Wilson was killed during a bombing raid over Hamburg.

A third brother, Keith, was advancing on Rome with the New Zealand Division when the second tragedy struck. He was pulled out of the front lines.

Angela Caughey (nee Wilson) says Keith never got over the deaths of his two brothers.

Sub-Lieutenant Ian Lewis Ruxton Wilson was killed in WW II but he was listed as missing in battle for 72 years. Photo / Nick Reed
Sub-Lieutenant Ian Lewis Ruxton Wilson was killed in WW II but he was listed as missing in battle for 72 years. Photo / Nick Reed

The mysterious death of Sub-Lieutenant Ian Lewis Ruxton Wilson always lingered over the Wilson family.

They have all wondered over the decades, just what happened. How did he die? Was his Swordfish plane shot down? Did he ditch in the North Sea? Was he captured by the Nazis and shot?

But after 72 years, Caughey received a shock phone call from a stranger. It was a conversation that would finally end the family's mystery.

"We never heard another thing from the authorities for 70 years and then suddenly out of the blue last October I received a phone call," said Caughey, now aged 87 and still living in Auckland.

The call came from Napier man, Les Hayward, nephew of Sub-Lieutenant Leslie Frank Hayward, who was a close mate of Wilson's and was shot down on the same mission.

Hayward's nephew, Tony Wiles, had researched the tragedy from his UK home.

His digging led him to Gildas Saouzanet, a local of the Brittany village of Plouguerneau, near Brest, with a passion for uncovering details of World War I and World War II plane crashes in his region of northwest France.

The flight commander's report on the operation suggested the planes went down in a tiny rocky cove on the Brittany coast.

Using a metal detector, Saouzanet was able to discover pieces of fuselage.

It now appears that flight co-ordinates were mistakenly changed mid-flight; Wilson and Hayward were sent to attack a beached German torpedo boat. They were shot down by massed anti-aircraft defences.

Caughey, a "fairly phlegmatic person", admits being stunned by the news.

"I had a good conversation with Les Hayward and got as many details from him as I could," she said.

"I've subsequently got photographs of the unmarked grave where Ian and three others are buried. They didn't want to tell me, but they were burned beyond recognition."

The graves are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Plouguerneau villagers lay flowers to pay their respects.

Now, Caughey and her family will make a pilgrimage to the site in August.

Saouzanet says he will pass on a piece of wreckage from her brother's plane.

"I never expected to find out the whole story," Caughey said.

"It's the sort of thing you never imagine could happen and it's been wonderful. It has brought my brothers into my family's life again."

How you can help

NZME, publisher of the Herald is asking for your help for Kiwi children like Jemma and Jaden Grant.

In the run-up to Anzac Day, we'll publish a series of stories highlighting the work of the RSA and the benefits of Camp Legacy.

We'll ask for donations to the RSA-Herald Poppy Appeal. All proceeds will help send children to Camp Legacy.

There are three ways to donate.

Our Pin A Poppy appeal gives you the chance to get a virtual poppy so you can show you remember to care. In return for a small donation via text or GrabOne, NZME's daily deals site, you can download a digital poppy to use as your profile image or share on your social media accounts.

Alternatively, you can make a donation by using the coupon from the newspaper, although you won't get a digital poppy.

The appeal is separate from, but complementary to, the RSA's national poppy appeal.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 28 May 2017 17:15:03 Processing Time: 834ms